Charlotte and Raleigh certainly have their problems — as discussed regularly in, among other places, this very spot on the opinion page! But as someone who grew up near Charlotte and now lives near Raleigh, I will also say there’s still more going right than going wrong in our state’s two most-populous communities.
Consider the findings of a new report from the California-based Pacific Research Institute. It ranked America’s 50 most-populous cities on a variety of policy measures related to economic growth and opportunity.
The top three cities on the PRI list were Fort Worth, Austin, and Colorado Springs. Raleigh and Charlotte tied for fourth place.
The study used seven bundles of data: marginal state and local tax rates, average state and local tax rates, the regulatory burden, the business environment (including the quality and availability of labor), affordability (consumer prices compared to median income), quality of life (including crime rates and the availability of high-quality services), and poverty (homelessness and other measures of material deprivation).
As should be readily apparent, many of these factors aren’t under the direct control of city policymakers — or of any policymakers, for that matter.
One reason Charlotte and Raleigh fare well in the study, for example, is that the North Carolina General Assembly has spent the past dozen years reforming and reducing state tax and regulatory burdens.
That’s why the Tax Foundation ranks our business tax climate 10th in the nation, a vast improvement from where we were before the legislature enacted its first round of tax reforms in 2011. We also do a better job than most — of building and maintaining transportation assets — which in North Carolina is primarily a state responsibility, not a local one.
According to a study by the Reason Foundation, North Carolina ranks second in the cost-effectiveness of our expenditures on highways, behind only our northern neighbor, Virginia.
Still, when the leaders of Raleigh and Charlotte do make critical policy decisions, they usually make wiser ones than their competitors do.
It’s easier to build new homes in our cities than in theirs. Our quality of life is higher. Our homeless populations, though challenging to manage, are smaller and less injurious to public order and safety.
I bet you can guess most or all of the lowest-ranked cities in the PRI study, but here’s the bottom 10, in descending order, just to make it official: Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Long Beach, Baltimore, New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland.
While each of these places retains some economic vitality, stable neighborhoods, and beautiful places, they are clearly in relative decline.
Moreover, their decline is not wholly, or even mostly, a consequence of forces beyond their control. The leaders of their state and local governments routinely make foolish decisions that squander the money, freedom, and trust of their residents — many of whom are, in turn, voting with their feet.
Among those 10 lowest-ranked cities in the PRI study, the average population change from 2020 to 2022 was a 3.4% drop. For the top-10 cities, it was a 1.6% increase. The population growth for Charlotte was, in fact, third in the country by this measure. Raleigh’s was eighth.
San Francisco and New York posted the biggest declines. Of the 14 cities posting significant population growth, three were in Texas. North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona were each home to two. The rest were in Nevada, Oklahoma, Colorado, Washington (Seattle), and California (Bakersfield).
“Many factors inform people’s location decisions,” wrote the study’s author, Wayne Winegarden, but most desire “cities that are affordable, foster economic opportunities, and offer residents a high quality of life. The cities offering families these attributes are growing while the cities that are unaffordable and offer a declining quality of life are losing families.”
Can we make Charlotte and Raleigh better places to live, work, play, rear children, and create new enterprises? Of course! But they could also be much, much worse. Just ask some of their newly arrived residents.